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He's back in the middle of it

Johnson brings healthy attitude

FOXBOROUGH -- He's been here so long, equipped with that jaw line every bit as sharp as the Patriots logo he wears on his helmet, that neck that practically screams, "Linebacker!" at you. Ten years now, he's been playing in the middle of the Patriots defense. And now, he has a message.

"I'm still here," said Ted Johnson, assertive and amiable at once.

And he's still confident he can produce. Only Willie McGinest and Troy Brown, who have been in New England for 11 and 12 years, have been Patriots longer than Johnson, a team captain. Now 31, Johnson is trying to prove he still belongs, that he can still play at the high level he enjoyed for much of his career.

After participating in the first two days of training camp, Johnson missed the next 19, returning last Wednesday. Since he missed the first exhibition game against the Eagles, his exhibition season debut came Saturday night against the Bengals. Johnson played mostly with the second string.

Picturing Johnson as anything but a starter would have seemed strange when his career began. He was a tackling machine from Colorado, sturdy as an oak, especially against the run. Then injury struck. And it kept striking.

Since injury first besieged him in 1998, when he tore a pectoral muscle and missed the final three games that year, Johnson has missed 27 regular-season games with a variety of ailments, more than a third of the Patriots' contests.

Still, the Patriots last year signed him to a three-year contract worth $4.8 million, a sign of faith in a player who's spent almost as much time on the trainer's table as the playing field.

Last season, he missed eight games after sustaining a foot injury in the opener against Buffalo. He started just two games (against Buffalo and Indianapolis) and finished the season with 21 tackles.

But Johnson holds firm that he is still a valuable cog in the defense.

"I know what I can do," Johnson said. "There's a reason I'm here. There's a reason they signed me to a new deal last year. So I must be doing something right. That's all I can worry about. Do I feel secure? Yeah, I feel secure."

He paused, harsh reality creeping into his head, the same kind that forced longtime teammate Lawyer Milloy out of Foxborough last year. When you're 31 and play in the NFL, nothing is certain.

"But you know, it's a league of youth," Johnson added. "There's new guys coming in and out. But it's out of my control, so I try not to worry about it."

For now, Johnson has to fit in behind Ted Washington's replacement, Keith Traylor. He will still try to be the run-stuffing rock that, when healthy, he always has been.

"My role stays the same," Johnson said. "Do what I do best. Play the run, be a good zone/man defender. Be a physical presence when I'm out there. Those are my strengths, and I'll play to my strengths as long as I have them."

How much longer that is, he doesn't know. Johnson is smart enough to realize you can only play pro football for so long.

For now, though, he is still here. And, if you ask him, he is not going anywhere.

"I'm very confident," Johnson said, a slight smile spreading on his face. "And I don't mean to be cocky, but I feel what I do is an asset to the team. I'm here for a reason. And I intend to stay here."

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